Tree of Life celebrates 8-day holiday with latkes, party
The sizzle of oil in cast-iron skillets.
The shuffle of shoes across the sections of cardboard placed on the kitchen floor.
The laughter of people of all ages upstairs.
That’s what Hanukkah sounded like Sunday at Morgantown’s Tree of Life congregation.
“I hope you brought your appetite to go with that notebook,” Marty Sippin said to a visitor who presented himself at the synagogue on South High Street.
Sundown at Sunday marked the eight-day march of Hanukkah.
The holiday celebrates an early victory of the Jewish faith over religious persecution.
It goes back to ancient Greece, where Jews were oppressed under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Greco-Syrian king in Jerusalem who outlawed their faith and desecrated their temple.
Worse still, the tyrannical ruler also made Jews sacrifice pigs, which are non-kosher animals on the temple altar.
A small group known as the Macabees rose up to defeat the king.
You can sum that up with one word, if you like, which is the essence of Hanukkah.
Specifically, the oil used when the menorah was relit on the temple.
There was only enough oil to keep the menorah going for one day — but miraculously, the menorah’s flames flickered for seven more after that.
That’s why oil is a sacred ingredient in Hanukkah cooking.
And why the fried-in-oil potato pancake known as a latke is the main staple of the eight-day celebration.
Which is why cardboard was down in the kitchen at Tree of Life.
“Hey, we leave nothing to chance,” member Rich Cohen said. “That floor gets slippery.”
All that oil, you know.
Lots of latkes
A couple of gallons of oil, plus 60 pounds of potatoes were combined for Tree of Life’s now legendary latke party, which is going into its fourth decade now.
Rich Cohen has been part of the synagogue’s just as legendary “latke brigade” for as long.
Sixty pounds of potatoes translate into some 550 latkes, which are traditionally prepared by the men of synagogue.
There’s laughing, and shared shots of Shlivovitz, an imported plum brandy that come out after each round of latkes.
Wives look in on the proceedings, but they don’t make the latkes.
“That’s because we’re doing this for them and our community,” Cohen said.
Just like that long-ago temple, there were no kings in the Tree of Life kitchen Sunday night, even if Stan Cohen (no relation to Rich) could have qualified for the title.
Stan Cohen came up with the idea for the brigade.
“In every culture and every civilization,” he said, “it all comes down to food and people.”
He’s known for his simple, tasty latke recipe, which makes up the signature Tree of Life offering.
Cohen has whipped up latkes in locales from South Florida to South Africa to celebrate Hanukkah.
On this night …
“Celebration,” was the word Sunday night at Tree of Life.
Rabbi Joe Hample can be a serious as the Harvard-trained Russian scholar he once was.
However, he can also be as gloriously goofy as a clarinet solo in a klezmer band.
The rabbi indulged in the latter Sunday night at Tree of Life, reducing the crowd to guffaws with his now-famous song parodies.
“That’s Menorah,” sung to the tune of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore,” and “Peelings” — his potato-take on the 1970s AM radio juggernaut, “Feelings” — remain crowd favorites.
It’s a little bit of fun in a world that can get very scary, very quickly.
After last year’s synagogue shootings at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, a new security system was installed at Tree of Life in Morgantown.
You don’t like to think about things like that, Sippin said, but sometimes, that’s just the way it is.
“We did that after the craziness,” he said.
Meanwhile, pancakes and people happily set the policy Sunday night in a tiny synagogue on South High Street.
Hample smiled as a little boy sauntered past.
The kid was wearing an oversized T-shirt imprinted with proclamation, “No Latke Before Its Time,” which is both a Stan Cohen quote and wardrobe creation from a few years back.
His yarmulke perched forward on his head, and his plate was laden with the potato delights that called the congregation to the table.
“We’re all here,” Hample said.
“On this night, we’re all here. Together.”